28 August 2007

hommage a Olivier Messiaen

One of the charming peculiarities of watching the Giants play at Major Phone Company Park, picturesquely perched right on the shores of San Francisco Bay, is that the local seagulls always seem to know when the game is about to end. Late in the 8th inning they will start to circle and swoop overhead, waiting for us to stream out so they can be undisturbed as they attack whatever remnant hot dogs, kettle corn, or garlic fries have fallen on the concrete. So how do they know? Baseball, as its pastoral fans mention repeatedly, has no clock, so it can’t be that the gulls just descend the same time every day, because every game ends at a different time. And the gulls appear whether it’s a day game or a night game, so they aren’t just showing up at the same approximate time each evening, and I don’t think they’ve managed to figure out the concept of a “weekend” much less the whole “Thursdays are day games” thing. So my theory was that somehow they were hearing Take Me Out to the Ballgame at the 7th inning stretch and that was their signal. But I wasn’t sure that – here’s where, in retrospect, I have no idea what I was thinking, or, more accurately, not thinking –birds would hear music that way. So I’m watching a game the other day, and the camera shows the gulls starting to gather, and the guys in the booth wonder how the birds know, and I remember my theory, and I think – Uh, yes, duh, moron, I think birds can understand and use song as a signal. It’s so very obvious that I could barely comprehend why I had even hesitated – it was as if a sudden lightning flash had illuminated the utter deep darkness and vacancy in which I had been wandering, and I had a sudden apprehension of what it’s like to be densely stupid. And I thought, Is this what it’s like to be George W. Bush? Bird-brained would be a step up.

from a distant shore

The San Francisco Opera season was capped by Iphigenie en Tauride, which seems to be the latest of those works that suddenly reappear out of the dim reaches of speculative revivals and for a year or two take living hold of every stage, major and minor. If the reason for Iphigenie’s sudden popularity among schedule-setters is that Susan Graham wants to sing it, then I can’t blame her or them; it’s a spectacular part and she is spectacular in it, striding forth from the blackness in a long black dress with her dark hair unbound. Pylade was Paul Groves and Orestes was Bo Skovhus; both were excellent but I did feel that Skovhus was just a bit blank in the part; I would have preferred it if SF Opera had cast the more intense and involved Nathan Gunn as Orestes rather than in the revival of Barbiere last fall. (Or in both; I’m agreeable.) The chorus stood in the pit and dancers took their place on stage, so that any fighting/pleading/rolling on the ground necessary could be done without vocal inhibitions. The black walls of the set closed in, providing the right sense of constriction and control. (The walls slowly lifted at the end, blinding us with light; the three leads walk slowly and separately away. The separation was, I thought, a mistaken imposition; you don’t necessarily need triumph at the end, but there’s no reason the three refugees shouldn’t walk or wander off together as logic and plot would suggest.) Chalk was used to write names on the walls: Clytemnestre on one side, Agamemnon opposing, and Iphigenie in the center (though I only know what was on the left side because I saw a second performance from the center – the left wall wasn’t visible from my usual seat). The names were erased with water, which streamed down like blood, leaving the walls marked with swirly delicate white clouds of evanescent chalk dust. So simple, so powerful. I’ve thought of this whole season, with its Opera 101 quality, as The Rosenberg Rebuke to the unadventurous San Francisco audiences, and with this Robert Carsen production I felt that Pamela gave us one last message, one that Gluck was also giving to his original audience: you don’t need high-society costumes and fancy furniture and elaborate sets that look like the paintings in cheap hotels, you don’t need stale works done in a style as antiquated as the audience; you don't even need fancy vocal fireworks; you just need talented singers totally committed to the drama. About a month after I saw my last performance, I dreamt that I was in a theater and Henry James was talking to me about his version of Iphigenie. I know where the Henry James part came from – I had read an article about him earlier that same day and was visited by one of my periodic urges to re-read The Wings of the Dove – but at some deep level the memory of generous self-sacrificing Millie Theale had shaken loose the haunting figure of Iphigenie.

14 August 2007

O Clarissa Harlowe, how art thou humbled to the dust!

I finally roused myself to check out the keywords people have used that lead them to these Reverberate Hills. A surprising number of searches were narwhal-related (or narwhale-related; I've seen both spellings). My apologies for the ensuing disappointment. I like them too. (To the guy looking for narwhal recipes: are you sure that's a good idea?)

P.S. I'm amending this to note V's suggested narwhal recipe: make shish kebabs by skewering chunks of itself on its own tusk.

through a glass darkly

A little while back, over in The Standing Room, the recently revealed M. C- (Hi, Sid!) asked who could have guessed that the triumph of the SF Opera season would be Iphigenie en Tauride, in a minimalist and modern production. I’ll blushingly admit it – I knew. I even bought an expensive ticket for a second viewing before I’d had the first. More about Iphigenie anon, but I had to record my triumph of insight only because I’m so often wrong about what will turn out to be a season highlight. (To take just one example, several years ago I urged a Strauss-loving – though maybe it's really more Strauss-liking – friend of mine to accompany me to Arabella, only to realize with horror when I actually saw it that it’s the only opera by him that I can't stand, a kitschy yet dull ode to social climbing. The plot would have made for a great fin-de-siecle Viennese novel, one filled with acrimonious satire and grotesque intimations of sexual perversity; as an opera, well, it’s a long and absurdly superficial meander to that glass of water. That’s what I get for listening to operas on CD and being lazy about reading the librettos. Just as well she didn’t accompany me.) Live performance is chancy by nature. Certain performers or works pique the viewer’s interest, and it’s going to vary from viewer to viewer, and I don’t envy artistic directors (Hi again, Sid!) having to figure out what will make for memorable evenings (or memorable box office). I mean, I think I would come up with a riveting season of theater, and for about a dozen audience members and another dozen performers it would be a highlight of their lives, and then we’d be out of business before the season ends because you need thousands and not dozens. I was pondering this recently when I saw that Berkeley Rep had replaced an upcoming production I was interested in – Rita Moreno in a solo show about Florence Foster Jenkins – with one I have no interest in seeing, Carrie Fisher in a solo show about herself. (Berkeley Rep giveth and Berkeley Rep taketh away: the same article in which I read about that switch said that Theatre de la Jeune Lune, which did a brilliant and inspired version of Moliere’s Miser a few years ago, would be back this spring with their version of Beaumarchais’s Figaro plays.) If you had asked me why I wasn’t interested in the Fisher show, I’d have said I’m tired of theaters skimping by doing one-person shows and I’m tired of the cult of celebrity taking the place of real theater, but if you get right down to it, both shows are about the cult of celebrity and both are solo turns; I just find Florence Foster Jenkins more interesting and moving than Carrie Fisher. I saw the first Star Wars film when it was new, and frankly it bored me, and I figure if Star Wars doesn’t appeal to you when you’re a seventeen-year-old boy there’s little point in pursuing it later in life. (Actually, maybe thirteen is the right age for Star Wars.) I’m sure the cult members will sell out the house, though, and I wish a pleasant evening to all of them. In my public-minded and benevolent way, I’m offering a Carrie Fisher drinking game: do a shot every time Fisher mentions (1) how Hollywood has no good roles for women over 35 or (2) some fanboy confessing to her his Princess Leia sex fantasies. I was going to come up with some more, but why bother? with those two you’ll be smashed in half an hour. The theater should sell the shots and make enough to mount some real plays.

Down Town

Decades of reading plays and seeing them live, and somehow, without deliberately avoiding it, I have never seen or read Our Town. Probably most theater-goers have a similar tale to tell. Recently an actor friend told me he had never read or seen The Taming of the Shrew. I was actually pretty impressed that he had not only never read it (like most farces it plays better than it reads) but had somehow managed to avoid either being cast in or forced to see a production. These things happen. But I’m not entirely blank when it comes to Our Town. I have seen the 1940 movie, with a score by Copland, a film debut by William Holden, and some major (Wilder-approved) changes (Emily lives!). And now I’ve also seen Ned Rorem’s operatic version at Festival Opera in Walnut Creek (many thanks to TSt for getting me into the final dress rehearsal).

The play’s once unusual features (the bare set, the Stage Manager stepping outside of the action to comment on it, and the subtle dislocations of time) are now pretty much standard practice, but the play has strengths that outlive its innovations, though I have to say it doesn’t really appeal to me, which I’m sure is more of a comment on me than on the play. The whole thing is so wholesome, the people so wise and good in their little victories and big insights, so loving and profound, that frankly it creeps me out. (Shortly after seeing the Our Town movie I watched another film with a script by Wilder, Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, and it occurred to me that it was the dark reverse of Our Town, and I felt more comfortable with it.) Give me the David Lynch-style severed ear near the white picket fence and I can happily gorge on my (literal or metaphorical) popcorn. But show me the good-hearted sincerity of decent folk in small-town Americana where stern but loving Dads give sensible advice to their chore-neglecting, baseball-crazy sons and busy but big-hearted Mothers dispense deep wisdom while shelling peas and, I’m sorry to say, the flesh of this jaded ironist crawls with uncomfortable terror. The libretto by JD McClatchy doesn’t really help things by banishing some of those subtle dislocations of time (the geographical background and other such comments) to surtitles rather than the actual dialogue. (The surtitles zip by a bit too quickly to be legible – I don’t know if they were planning to change that before the official opening; the actual sung text is not surtitled, which makes sense in a small theater presenting a work in English.) Also, 1901 – 1913 was a lot closer to the play’s original audience than it is to us, and that passage of time makes Grover’s Corners more picturesque now than it probably would have been originally, or is meant to be. My memory of the movie is that it’s much darker than the opera – the troubled drunken organist and the gossipy neighbor seemed rueful here rather than tragic or vicious. The social divisions in the town – there’s actually a separate “Polish section,” on the wrong side of the tracks – are undercut in this production by having a black performer (Trente Morant) as the organist. I’m all in favor of multi-racial casting – it doesn’t change what’s going on in Trovatore or Walkure or whatever to have singers of different races – but if you’re going to represent a specific time and place in pre-Brown vs Board of Education America you just can’t ignore the moral and political significance of segregation (I had the same complaint about the casting of Dr Atomic). A view of the American past in which a black man would be a respected (albeit drunken) member of an otherwise white New England community is, unfortunate as it is to say so, a completely false representation, glossing over bitter social realities with indiscriminate Currier and Ives charm. (Also unfortunately, neither Morant’s singing nor his acting was good enough so that I could overlook this objection.) On the whole the cast was on a very high level, with Marnie Breckenridge and Thomas Glenn outstanding as the young lovers. I thought Patrice Houston was particularly good as Mrs Gibbs, and Darla Wigginton without much to work with gave us the local Helen Lovejoy in Mrs. Soames. I didn’t like Richard Byrne as the Stage Manager; he kept pursing his face in a rubbery, condescending smile and he had trouble with some of the higher notes. The set is simple and effective, as is traditional for the piece.

Our Town is meant to be – must be, to succeed as more than a sentimental period piece – an accurate picture of life, both in its dailiness and in its profounder call to cherish every moment. Is life in this Grover’s Corners really what McClatchy and Rorem have experienced as life? I don’t know much about McClatchy, and I’ve never read Rorem’s famous diaries, but I suspect it isn’t. You may notice it’s taken me a while to mention the composer. I like a lot of Rorem’s songs (check out “Early in the Morning” on Nathan Gunn’s American Anthem CD). There were some beautiful moments in the opera. All of it was pleasing and suitable. In fact, it sounded exactly the way you’d think the music for Our Town should sound, which could be seen as either a triumph or a disappointment. Even with my limited experience of the play, most of what I was seeing lacked novelty for me. It’s strange that a new opera should already have the familiarity of Carmen or Tosca, and it might have to do with the beloved source, which is already a cultural given even to those who have never actually seen it. According to the playbill, it was Wilder’s nephew and the librettist who decided to turn the play into an opera, and they selected Rorem as the composer. Nothing wrong with a librettist taking the lead, but I got the feeling that Rorem wasn’t producing this out of any deep musical need. Even granted that Our Town is meant to unfold slowly, it takes too long for it to make sense as a sung rather than spoken piece. It’s all pleasant, but I kept thinking about the scene from Getty's Plump Jack that I saw at the Adler Fellow’s Gala last December. I think the combination of music and singing and dancing and poetry and action is the basic impulse of all drama (which is why opera will never die, people, only change), from the Greeks on (even the traditional Catholic Mass is basically a dramatic re-enactment set to music), but there are some things that are just more expressive when spoken. The Plump Jack text was Henry IV pt 2’s scene between Falstaff and Justice Shallow, and any actor could have expressed about seventeen different emotions in those lines, but the singers were limited to two or three, and lines that cried out for an individual twist or inflection were subsumed by the melodic line. It isn’t until Act 3 of Our Town, when Emily sings her farewell to the earth (and Breckenridge is just beautiful at that moment), that the piece really started making sense to me as a musical work.

I’m glad I went to Our Town; it’s worth seeing, but I’m not sure it’s worth seeing twice. Others might feel differently, of course. I’m even glad I went to Festival Opera, which, in my admittedly very limited experience with them, has absolutely the worst audiences around. You could film them for a pre-concert film on “How Not to Behave in the Theater,” which actually might be more useful than most of the pre-concert lectures.

09 August 2007

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

For the last two weeks, I've spent my summer coughing -- hacking, hawking, and coughing, coughing, coughing like a road company Camille, downing liquids, pills, lozenges until I don't know if it's the cough or the cure that's leaving me helpless. In the meantime dead leaves are piling to autumnal depths in my driveway, the backyard is littered with rose petals like a Spanish city on Corpus Christi, and my heirloom tomatoes need me, dammit. That's just outside the house, which, I've recently noticed, really needs to be painted. The inside is in worse shape. I had a whole bunch of entries planned, but they'll have to wait until this thing passes. In the meantime I've been lying around watching the Ring Cycle on DVD (the Barenboim/Kupfer one from Bayreuth -- since I was there last summer, I thought I'd re-live the excitement). Between my coughing, loudly unwrapping lozenges, and the phone ringing tinnily downstairs, it's almost exactly like being in a real opera house! I pause sometimes to glare at myself for my lack of courtesy.

03 August 2007

hic et ubique?

Several months ago a food writer in the SF Chronicle scornfully chastised any Bay Area resident who would even think about using frozen duck. I don’t know what her definition of “readily available” is, but she clearly hasn’t been to my local Safeway, which, while totally adequate, has a way of always missing some key item I’m looking for. Things I have looked for and not found, either because they’re out of stock or because the store doesn’t carry them: whole wheat pasta, candied ginger, mixed nuts, amaretti, whole-grain crackers, plain nonfat yogurt, chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream (you see the extent of my dilemma. . . .). Don’t even think about looking for tahini. Just don’t. So there I am in the greeting card/paperback/magazine aisle recently, because printed matter compels me to reading the way fresh duck compels an SF food writer towards snobbery, and in between the romances (will our tempestuous auburn-haired beauty be able to tame the brooding duke/cowboy/lawyer who mysteriously turned up in town? Something tells me she will!) and the true crime paperbacks (will your husband murder you in your bed and run off with his secretary? He very well might!) there’s a Latin-English dictionary. Several of them, in fact, so it’s no random volume left by a rebel scholar who has no dog to eat his homework, but an actual stocked item with a bar code. I don’t even know what to make of this.

01 August 2007

Is there something I don't know?

Let me be more specific, since there’s quite a lot I don’t know: this is about baseball caps. Not the already-old switch in the way those crazy kids rebelliously disrespect the entire world (visors to the side now, instead of caps worn backwards - who can keep up!), or the much odder tendency to leave the big black-and-gold size stickers on the bill of fitted caps instead of peeling them right off. No, this is about the classic Detroit Tigers cap, which is navy blue with an upper-case Gothic D woven in white. I’ve noticed a lot of these around lately, much more than usual for the Bay Area. Then the August Opera News arrives, and there’s a big picture of Andreas Scholl, photographed in Switzerland, which I had never thought of as a hotbed of baseball fever, and he’s wearing a Detroit Tigers cap. So is this some sort of fashion statement or gang sign now, like a NY Yankees cap (which just figures)? Is Scholl flashing gang signs in the mezzo/countertenor turf war mentioned elsewhere in the issue? More to the point, if I happen to grab my Tigers cap for a trip to the store (no, I’m not balding, I just need to protect my eyes from the sun) is some angry mezzo going to hurt me bad? Because believe me, I do not want to mess with a mezzo.